Each month Graham Hancock gives space on his website for a fellow author to present a fringe claim that is of interest to Hancock’s readers. This month the honor fell to P. D. Newman, a Freemason whose book Alchemically Stoned argues that one of Freemasonry’s eighteenth-century rituals is actually a plan for synthesizing DMT, the active ingredient in ayahuasca, from the acacia plant and that Masonry’s dirty secret is that the Masons used to go tripping on hallucinogens. DMT was not synthesized until the 1950s, according to conventional history. I will confess that this is one area where the fringe claim just doesn’t matter very much to me, since the 1700s are far from ancient times, but the subject amused me enough that I thought it was worth calling to the attention of my readers.
Newman starts out on a bit of a sour note when he says that the earliest versions of Masonic ritual referred to cassia rather than acacia, which he finds disappointing because cassia, a genus of plant used in traditional Indian medicine, is “possessed of no real psychotropic value.” Newman’s account doesn’t match published accounts in Masonic literature, which state that acacia is the original word, dating to 1780. Despite this, he argues that “illiterate” people dropped the “a” from acacia, misleading Masons into using cassia.
This entire discussion is lifted wholesale from Albert Mackey’s Symbolism of Freemasonry from 1882, with only a brief footnote to indicate the uncritical repetition. The relevant text from Mackey, which is a reworking of an article Mackey published back in the 1850s, is as follows:
And here, in passing, I may be permitted to say that it is a very great error to designate the symbolic plant of Masonry by the name of "Cassia"—an error which undoubtedly arose, originally, from the very common habit among illiterate people of sinking the sound of the letter a in the pronunciation of any word of which it constitutes the initial syllable. Just, for instance, as we constantly hear, in the conversation of the uneducated, the words pothecary and prentice for apothecary and apprentice, shall we also find cassia used for acacia. Unfortunately, however, this corruption of acacia into cassia has not always been confined to the illiterate: but the long employment of the corrupted form has at length introduced it, in some instances, among a few of our writers. Even the venerable Oliver, although well acquainted with the symbolism of the acacia, and having written most learnedly upon it, has, at times, allowed himself to use the objectionable corruption, unwittingly influenced, in all probability, by the too frequent adoption of the latter word in the English lodges. In America, but few Masons fall into the error of speaking of the Cassia. The proper teaching of the Acacia is here well understood.
The above-mentioned George Oliver proposed that the corruption went the other way, and cassia was the original plant, replaced by more literary ritualists with the more grandiose acacia. Mackey preferred the opposite because he believed that corruptions only make words shorter. But Mackey’s conjecture is merely a conjecture. It is not an established fact. In the Illustrated History and Cyclopedia of Freemasonry from 1908, which appears to be the most recent readily available research on the subject, Robert Macoy provided a list of half a dozen different explanations for the sprig of cassia or acacia and wrote that there was equal evidence for both readings, that either plant would serve equally well as a symbol of renewal, and that there was no real way to know which was originally meant. All told, however, he favored cassia since the use of an evergreen is better attested in ancient literature.
I am rather inclined to think that the choice of cassia, which is a kind of laurel, was founded on some mysterious reference which it was supposed to possess, either mythological or symbolical. There are, however, great difficulties to be surmounted before the truth can be ascertained.
Others argued, logically enough, that the acacia should be preferred since it was the wood of Solomon’s tabernacle. This seems like it would also provide the explanation for the Masonic sprig without recourse to DMT, but the bottom line is that the question is much more complex than Newman implies.
Instead, Newman proposes that cassia was the original and that a secret alchemical conspiracy intentionally altered it to acacia. This conspiracy is centered on the argument that the philosopher’s stone was actually a vegetable. “For certain of the Alchemically-inclined Freemasons, this stone was none other than DMT salts (a veritable vegetable stone) that had been extracted from certain species of acacia.” Newman’s idea that the philosopher’s stone was a vegetable actually comes from Grail literature, where the Holy Grail—which he silently elides with the philosopher’s stone—is said to be “not of stone, not of bone, not of metal” and therefore a plant: “It must, therefore, be deduced that the true stone of the philosophers is to be found only within the vegetable kingdom; namely, within the sprig of acacia, Masonry’s prima materia.” The claim is lifted from Clark Heinrich’s Magic Mushrooms in Religion and Alchemy, which is where the exact wording of the stone/bone/metal quote is to be found. It’s a paraphrase of a passage from the Lancelot-Grail, a medieval prose retelling of the Arthurian legend cycle: “of wood was it not, nor any kind of metal nor of stone was it wrought, neither of horn nor of bone.” (trans. Lizette Andrews Fisher; original Old French: “Car de fust nestoit il mie . ne de nulle maniere de metail . ne de pierre ne de cor ne dos & de chou est il moult corouchies .”) Our author, in declining to seek out the original mistakenly followed Heinrich in claiming the Grail to be a plant when the romance excludes wood, which is the primary way acacia is used—as wood.
The ritual, created by occultist and notorious quack Giuseppe Balsamo, better known as Cagliostro, that Newman claims represents the creation and ingestion of DMT is taken from Philippa Faulks’s The Masonic Magician (2008), and refers to Cagliostro’s eighteenth-century Rite of High Egyptian Masonry that was not adopted into the broader mainstream of Freemasonry. I can only find the quoted text in sources copied directly from Faulks, but the actual source is even less inspiring: It’s taken directly from New Age magazine in 1919, where the Egyptian Rite ritual was published in English translation from L’Initiation, a journal of “hypnotism, Theosophy, Kabbala, and occult science,” which regular readers will remember as a key outlet for early Jesus Holy Bloodline claims. The French text, originally published anonymously, was later revealed to be from the hand of a Dr. Encausse, the Grand Master of the Martinists, who vouchsafed but could not prove that he had copied it verbatim from a copy of a now-lost manuscript original from Cagliostro’s hand. The Catholic Inquisition had seized and destroyed most copies of the original after condemning Cagliostro as a heretic. Far from a secret alchemical text, the extant ritual was soon revealed as a close copy of other occult texts, notably those of Martinez de Pasqually, the occult Mason and founder of Martinism. Cagliostro’s references to the acacia can be seen as reflecting those that Pasqually offered in his catechism, where the three branches of the acacia represent the three types of humans. In both cases, for example, the possessors of the acacia are called the Elect. Cagliostro’s system of occult masonry can be explained as a development from Pasqually with coloring from then-fashionable ideas about Egypt and Jewish occultism. No magic or DMT is necessary.
I emphasize these seemingly trivial points because Newman’s entire thesis is built on such facile readings of secondary literature. Once you start kicking out the lies, the misrepresentations, and the ignorant mistakes, and questioning his tendency to adopt hard line views of ambiguous material, there is nothing left.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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